On the same day as I re-visited the Roma settlement at Psari Aspropyrgos, I went to the camp at Mandra. The contrast between the two places was stark. I was transported back three years, to my first visit to Votanikos. The above photograph gives you some idea but cannot hope to illustrate exactly how it is there. And don’t forget…this was December and most of the small children had no shoes. They were walking through this rancid mud, littered with dangerous rubbish.
I asked this small boy if he was cold. He shrugged and carried on walking beside me. I imagine that he thought my question was ridiculous. Of course he was cold. It was like asking someone who is starving if they are hungry. And what would I do if he said yes. Could I offer him some shoes and socks? A coat? No. I had nothing to offer him. Again, I felt like a useless onlooker.
My camera was my connection with the children. They were thrilled to see themselves on the screen. (I will make hard copies for them if I have the opportunity to return). While I was taking their pictures, it was easy to forget the surroundings. They were just kids posing for me.
This woman told me about the reality of living in this place. There is no running water. No electricity. The community only makes money by selling scrap metal. She worries about feeding her children, not about whether they go to school or not. The conditions in this settlement are dire but there was also evidence of efforts to improve it. It is remarkable to me that even in the midst of this dump, plants are tended in pots outside the houses. The outside panels of this home are in matching wood. Carpets and plastic had been laid on the ground, to try and keep some of the filth at bay.
These are small things and they do not diminish the overwhelming degradation of this place. To me, they represent the determination and resolve of the community. To make the best out of their living conditions. How much more they could achieve with support. How easy it would be to improve the life of hundreds of Roma if there was the will to do so. This brings me to the conversation we had here about housing loans.
This woman, who was acting as spokesperson for the community, explained the situation regarding loans for housing that they have been unable to secure. I asked the Greek Helsinki Monitor for details about this and why they are so difficult to get. I was not surprised by the answer. There were limited number of loans to be had and because of wide-spread corruption, many families have been unsuccessful in their applications.
From the Greek Helsinki Monitor report to the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in August 2009. This section concerns the Integrated Action Program (IAP) for the social integration of Greek Roma (which excludes any Roma of other nationalities living legally in Greece).
The authorities introduced also a housing loans scheme: 9,000 loans of 60,000 euros each. “The loans are strictly provided for main residence purposes, whether this involves purchasing; building; completing of building or even engagement in organized town building held by the local authorities. This last option of engaging in projects of integrated settlements constructed by the competent local authorities request beneficiaries’ definite consent, assignment of state property (municipal or public) and application of minimum technical standards (i.e. legal obligation for the construction of houses of at least 85m2 net space each)… Regarding the payment of the loans, these are granted upon favorable terms: beneficiaries are subsidized by the State on 80% of the loan’s interest, and may conclude with the payment in a period of 22 years, whereas, 100% of the loan and of its interests is guaranteed too by the State Budget (for the banks participating at the program)… The Ministry of Interior has allocated 8,785 housing loans to an equal number of families all over Greece. Up to date , 7,482 families have been successfully nominated, whereas (out of 7,482) a total of 5,992 beneficiaries have already disbursed their loans (80,1% increasing) from the banks engaged in the program.” More recent data put the number of beneficiaries nominated to 7,681 and of loans disbursed to 6,212. The 7,681 loans granted correspond to an expenditure of 461 million euros, as compared to an actual expenditure of 74 million euros for the whole IAP: 86% of the total expenditure on Roma programs in 2002-8 concerned housing loans and another 9% (42 million euros) other housing projects.
Housing loans were to be granted to “Greek Gypsies who live in settlements around the country, in tents, sheds or other buildings that do not meet the minimum requirements of a house.” However, “although the intention of the State was clear, in regard to the housing characteristics that were the goal of this policy, this intention did not translate into a criterion for the selection of beneficiaries.” As a result, “a considerable proportion of the loans, which cannot be ascertained, was not conferred to Gypsies who live in tents, sheds or other impromptu dwellings, despite the original intention of the relevant [ministerial] decisions.” “It was Gypsies with a relatively high degree of social integration and who already lived in houses, perhaps of impromptu or bad construction, who mostly took advantage of these loans, in an attempt to improve in this way their housing condition.”
So you can see the problems. This coupled with the fact that the Roma at the two settlements I visited are dealing with an openly racist mayor, who has done everything in his power to block any assistance for the Roma communities and to ensure non-integration every step of the way, including the segregated ghetto school I wrote about.
While I am on the issue of housing for the Roma, here is another Integrated Action Program (IAP) housing scheme (written about in the same report as above) that has gone woefully wrong.
The IAP’s first pillar was termed “infrastructure:” “the aim is the achievement of permanent housing rehabilitation for all Greek Gypsies, as possible, and the development of living conditions in existing settlements.” It had a budget of 176 million euros to be spent in the creation of 100 new organized Roma settlements, in areas covering 1,500,000 sq.m., that would include 4,000 new homes of an average size of 120 sq.m. each; moreover, some 1,100-1,200 existing homes were to be improved; while 60 camping sites for itinerant Roma in areas covering 1,000,000 sq.m. were also to be created. All actions were to be carried out on the basis of proposals by the municipalities approved and then funded by the central government.
The Greek authorities, after the end of the program period, reported in 2009 that, out of 176 million euros budgeted for infrastructure, “the projects approved so far amounts to 80,54 million euro (national budget), whereas, till September 2008 the total budget allocated following the works processed amounts to 42,20 million euro.” Out of the 100 new housing units and 4,000 new homes planned, Greece reported in 2009 that new housing units “have been established at several municipalities of Greece such as Didimoticho (54 houses), Sofades (84 houses), Serres (25 houses) and Menemeni (24 houses)”, i.e. four housing units and 187 houses had been constructed. Additionally, 557 prefabricated homes were allocated to municipalities for the establishment of organized settlements, in implementation of the plan to improve some 1,100-1,200 existing homes. None of the 60 camping sites for itinerant Roma planned was created. On the contrary, one housing unit meeting the criteria of, and officially called locally, a “camping site” (with small prefabricated homes of 50-60 sq.m.) was constructed in Kalamata (Messinia) and was inaugurated in December 2008: however, as the authorities also report it is effectively a permanent housing unit with 66 prefabricated homes. In May 2009, the competent Deputy Minister of Interior, interviewed about the presence for several years of a destitute Roma settlement by the highway near the Athens airport, highlighted the main reason for the failure of the housing pillar of IAP, the unwillingness of municipalities. He stated that “mayors avoid taking decisions about Roma as they also avoid taking decisions about rubbish dumps –and I am sorry that I have to make such comparison- and about the installation of any nuisance uses.”
No prizes for guessing where the money has gone (or will go). A good plan spoiled by mismanagement, corruption, lack of will and downright hostility from some of the authorities involved.
So these children are destined to live here in the filth, with very little hope of improvement. These pictures haunt me because their faces give away some of the hurt and despair they feel. It’s raw and it’s something that most of us do not want to see, let alone deal with. And the most frustrating thing is that it could have been so easy to improve their lives. The money was there. The plan was there. Unfortunately, the people in charge of implementing the housing scheme are either corrupt or incompetent and the people who do have the will to do something positive are not in positions of authority.
I hope for the day that I can return here with good news. To be able to tell these sweet girls that I am bringing water to their community. Or imagine… prefab houses. Or a health clinic. Or a school.
Because right now, I am tired of just taking pictures…